EU negotiator Michel Barnier and the Irish government seem to be inching their way towards special status – sorry – arrangements, for the North.
The EU is there for you, Ireland and so is a close partnership with the UK based on a fair free trade agreement – but ( only!) after sufficient progress on EU citizens’ rights and the financial settlement. So declared Michel Barnier in a speech to the Oireachtas that seemed designed to calm the worst Irish fears of the consequences of Brexit.
We’ll see how both sides spin it; but if you were to put in dots between adjoining sentences where no dots presently exist (admittedly) you’d reach something like special status pretty quickly. With Dublin making most of the running at this stage, it’s easy to forget that this would have to be agreed by the British government who have stayed frustratingly schtum on solutions since triggering the Article 50 process.
Michel Barnier brought buckets of good will with him in his speech to the Oireachtas but he had no magic bullet with him on the vexing question of the open border. It was all on the one hand “the customs union protects the single market “ and on the other “nothing in this negotiation should put peace at risk”.
The emphasis on EU citizens’ rights – also a favourite theme of Enda’s swan song – is interesting. In an otherwise anodyne complementary article in the Belfast Telegraph today, Foreign minister Charlie Flanagan concludes a list of border issues with the bald sentence:
I will be highlighting the fact that virtually everyone born in Northern Ireland is entitled to Irish and, therefore, EU citizenship.
How can those ” rights ” be recognised after Brexit? Only by the special status or something like membership of the EEA?
The Irish stretch the concept of Irish citizen rights for northerners pretty far, almost to the point of joint determination and claiming a veto on major constitutional measures like direct rule. The British- politely and quietly – demur. Maximum solidarity with the Irish is vital in this time of upheaval. But don’t forget that the British government is opposed to a continuing direct legal relationship with the EU for any part of the UK such as continuing membership of the single market on the grounds of incompatibility with leaving the EU.
Anglo-Irish solidarity could come under strain, if the EU sides with Ireland over how the Brexit future affects the North. Acceptance of automatic EU membership for a united Ireland however hypothetical today, could be a harbinger.
It looks as if Irish and therefore EU citizenship,is shaping up to become the foundation of a continuing special EU relationship for Northern Ireland which EU 27 might accept, leaving the British to react. Hardly the position of a government seeking to take back control.
Barnier acknowledges the difficulty inherent a Brexit border is his apparent acceptance for the need for some sort of customs arrangements. Thus the need for innovative solutions to deny the logic of a hard border.
No doubt the good citizens of Louth will be warming Barnier’s ear later. I assume he and Flanagan will not stray across the border though I hope a spread of Northern Ireland interests will be represented.
Later an interesting set of leaders’ speeches
In follow up speeches Taoiseach Enda Kenny said there was a political challenge ahead and there would be need for a “flexible and imaginative” approach.
Mr Kenny welcomed that the unique circumstances that apply to Ireland were fully acknowledged in the Commission’s guidelines in supporting and protecting the achievements of the Good Friday Agreement.
However, he said it was not the time for a border poll.
However the BBC reports that Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams told Barnier he wanted to see a border poll within the next five years.
The RTE reports said Adams used his address to look for Special Designated Status within the EU for Northern Ireland.
He began with criticism of the bloc by claiming that “the EU is wedded to neo-liberal policies. .These have created widespread hardship as austerity, deregulation and privatisation have undermined the social function of states and the rights of citizens, including the rights of workers. Increasingly people across the EU are uncomfortable with its direction..This has assisted the growth of far-right parties which exploit people’s fears. Brexit is a consequence of that.”
He said it is vital that the challenges of Brexit are met on an all-island basis.
Designated special status for Northern Ireland within the European Union is not about a hard or a soft Brexit but is about the best interests of the economy, the peace process and the people, Mr Adams said.
Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin said the Belfast Agreement establishes structures and policies which are intended to evolve over time. It is not a question of having either the status quo or reunification.
“In fact the real spirit of the agreement is to be found in provisions which allow for greater shared action over time in important practical matters.”
He said “whatever is agreed in the negotiations must do nothing to undermine the ability to allow shared, cross-border institutions and action to develop”, including tourism, trade and EU funding.
He warned that new EU legal measures are likely to be necessary to deal with Northern Ireland, the Common Travel Area and economic adjustments.
He said that a form of special status should be considered in the Brexit negotiations. “There are many models of special economic zones in the world which could be adapted.”
But he warned that the commitment to protect the Common Travel Area was referenced in a treaty protocol that “is essentially meaningless once the UK leaves the Union because Ireland’s rights are defined in terms of its relations with another contracting partner to the treaty.
“This raises what may be a fundamental practical issue with the negotiations – which is the status of the agreement which emerges.”
Meanwhile, Labour leader Brendan Howlin said the Brexit negotiating guidelines do not “sufficiently recognise the unique challenges” facing the Republic of Ireland. He said that Brexit means the idea of achieving the European single market has been set back a generation or more.
“Bluntly, once the UK leaves, it will no longer make any real, practical, day-to-day sense to talk about our membership of a single market in relation to the goods and services that we import and export”, he said.
Mr Howlin said “talk of the single market will, from our perspective, revert from being something approaching reality, towards something more closely resembling a pious aspiration.”
With the depreciation of the sterling, Brexit is already having an impact on the value of Irish exports to the UK. In particular, the agri-food sector. And many in Ireland fear the return of tensions in the North. Today, in front of these two houses, I want to reassure the Irish people: in this negotiation Ireland’s interest will be the Union’s interest. We are in this negotiation together and a united EU will be here for you.
Tomorrow, I will travel to the border with Northern Ireland. I will meet farmers and workers in a dairy co-operative. I want to learn from them. And listen to their concerns about how they are affected by Brexit. Some might be concerned about their exports to the UK or by the return of custom checks at the border. Others might fear a return to the instability of the past. In Northern Ireland, lifting the borders took time. Only 15 years ago did check-points and controls totally disappear. Thanks to the Good Friday Agreement that ended decades of violence.
I was the European Commissioner in charge of the PEACE programme. I understand the Union’s role in strengthening dialogue in Northern Ireland and supporting the Good Friday Agreement. European integration helped to remove borders that once existed on maps and in minds.
Brexit changes the external borders of the EU. I will work with you to avoid a hard border. We have a duty to speak the truth. The UK’s departure from the EU will have consequences. Customs controls are part of EU border management. They protect the single market. They protect our food safety and our standards. I already said many times: nothing in this negotiation should put peace at risk. This was recognised by the 27 Heads of State and Government two weeks ago.
They were very clear that the Good Friday Agreement must be respected in all its dimensions. I also made very clear that the border issue will be one of my three priorities for the first phase of the negotiation.
Together with citizens’ rights and the financial settlement. We first must make sufficient progress on these points, before we start discussing the future of our relationship with the UK. The sooner this will happen, the better. If the conditions are right, a close partnership with the UK is in everybody’s interest. And in Ireland’s interest in particular.
Currently, Ireland exports 14% of its goods and 20% of its services to the UK. This is twice the EU average. · The agricultural and energy sectors are fully interconnected on the island of Ireland. Of course, such facts must be put in perspective. · Before Ireland’s accession to the EU in 1973, the UK accounted for over 50% of Irish trade. · Today, Ireland exports much more to the other EU countries than to the UK. And the single market is a key asset for your financial or pharmaceutical industry.
Still, the specific issues that you face deserve all our attention. Once again, Ireland shares a land border with the UK. And most of its trade to the EU goes through the UK. This is why I have engaged with the Dáil and Seanad, the government and its administration, as well as all the Irish Members of the European Parliament, immediately after taking up my position. Ireland has done remarkable preparatory work. Together, we are working towards solutions. We have to use our combined strength. And deliver solutions that benefit all Member States. I want to listen to the concerns of the Irish people. But I also want to pass on a message of hope and determination. For all the problems it creates, Brexit also reminds us of what the EU has built together. What each of us enjoys as an EU citizen and how we can further improve the European project. This EU is not perfect.
Our objective is clear: we want these negotiations to succeed. I want us to reach a deal. The UK has been a member of the EU for 44 years. It should remain a close partner. · We will need to negotiate a “bold and ambitious”, but fair free-trade agreement.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London